Memoir Writing Tips for Creating Story Structure and the Narrative Arc

Memoir writers struggle with plot and structure for a very good reason: they think they know the plot. They assume that writing “what happened” is enough to create a memoir, and think that putting journal entries into the computer can be their memoir. A memoir is a story, created and constructed with skill and focus. It can be chronological or it might not be. Writing a memoir asks for you to dig deep into your biography and come up with scenes that bring a reader into your world fully and inspire them to keep reading–something about you and your story is relevant to their lives.

Some tips for thinking about story and plot:

  •        A story has a reason for being told—this is your theme.
  •        Unlike journaling, a story has a form—a beginning, middle, and an end.  Another way to think about this is that your story, your book, needs to have a dramatic structure: Act One, Act Two, and Act Three.
  •      Something significant happens in each scene of the story, the point of the scene.
  •      The main character, the protagonist—in a memoir it’s you!—is changed significantly by events, actions, decisions, and epiphanies. The growth and change of the main character is imperative in any story, and is the primary reason a memoir is written—to show the arc of character change from beginning to end.
  •      All stories have conflict, rising action, a crisis, a climax, and a resolution.
  •      By the end, the story world, the world where the protagonist began, is transformed.

Focusing your Theme in the Arc

As you plan your story, clarify your themes. Being clear about them will help you to build your book toward the final resolution of the theme’s questions and conflicts by the end of the narrative arc, the end of the book.

Many memoirists explore how certain events changed their lives irrevocably, such as Lucky by Alice Sebold, the story of a rape, or surviving a bizarre and chaotic childhood in Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs. Another theme is recovering from the death of a loved one—The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, or Paula by Isabel Allende.

Patricia Hampl’s The Florist’s Daughter or Mary Gordon’s Circling My Mother shows the heartbreak and challenging difficulties of aging and dying parents. Sexual abuse is explored in Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss, and mental illness is the topic of Girl, Interrupted by Susan Kaysen, and An Unquiet Mind by Kay Jamison. There are countless varieties of themes, but though books may have the same theme, the stories, language, and structure make each book unique. It’s imperative that you develop your skills to allow your story to shine.

To clarify your choice of theme for your narrative arc, ask the following questions:

  • What is the main, overarching meaning of my story?
  • What is my book about? (One sentence.)
  • How does my book end? What do I want the reader to understand and learn?

Three Acts of Dramatic Structure

Not all books follow this plan for the story, but many do, as do many movies. Most memoirists don’t think about the arc of the story at all, getting lost sometimes in a forest/trees dilemma of too much detail. If you learn more about this, you have more choices in how you think about and develop your story. 

Act One (Beginning): the set up of the story, introduction of characters and situations which show conflicting desires and complications through different scenes. During this act you present the who, what, when, where, and why of the story.

Act Two (Middle): Drawing upon scenes and summaries, the story action rises through conflicts, complications, and challenges the protagonist keeps attempting to solve, but as the story progresses, even more complications develop that thwart an easy or quick resolution.

Act Three (End): In the last act, the protagonist wrestles with the forces that have been working again her, which is shown through what is called the crisis and the climax of the story. After that, is the denouement or the falling action that resolves the loose ends of the story. The crisis may be thought of as a spiritual challenge or a dark night of the soul where the deepest beliefs and core truths of the character are tested. The climax is the highest level of tension and conflict the protagonist must resolve as the story comes to a close.

Read fiction and memoir with these ideas in mind. How soon do you understand the themes in books that you read? Do you see a beginning, middle, and end structure in fiction and memoir that you’re reading?

What are your three favorite memoirs, and why? Do you have favorite fiction books from childhood–what were they and why?

Memoir and Plot–Yes you DO Need One!


My guest blog today is from Martha Alderson, aka “The Plot Whisperer” who has a fabulous new book out through Writers Digest The Plot Whisperer. Martha has worked her magic with many of my students over the years,  and I’m so glad to speak with her at one of my teleseminars through NAMW.

Today she will be talking with me at the National Association of Memoir Writers’ Member Teleseminar. Join us to get her special tips and to ask your own questions about plot in your memoir.

The Power of Plot for Memoirists

In novels, the protagonist is defined as the character most changed by the dramatic action of the story. In memoirs, the main character is the author herself who is also defined as the character most changed by the dramatic action in the memoir. When I consult with memoirists on the plot and structure of their memoirs, I immediately switch the main character of the memoir from being the writer with whom I’m consulting into a protagonist instead.

I do this for three reasons.

1) Just as the protagonist in a novel or screenplay is transformed by the dramatic action in the story, the memoirist must also show the same sort of transformation in herself due to the external dramatic action of the events of her life portrayed in the memoir. Story is all about the protagonist undergoing a journey and becoming transformed in the process. The journey itself must be built on exciting dramatic action in order to please and entertain the audience.

2) A switch in the focus from the writer to the protagonist gives the memoirist enough distance from her own story to better determine the elements needed to create the greatest impact on the reader. For example, I have found that although most people are quick to identify other people’s flaws and faults, they have difficulty pinpointing their own. Without a flaw, the character arc in a memoir becomes more difficult to manage.

3) When the feedback I give during a plot consultation is focused on the protagonist of the story conveyed in the memoir, the input is not taken as personally as if I were referring to the writer herself. For instance, many writers tend to be introverts, which often translates into a passive main character that often floats from one event to the next. It is easier for both the writer and myself when such a problem is referred to through the guise of the protagonist.

Memoir writing at its best shares the writer’s past with the reader in story form in order to entertain, enlighten, motivate, and/or make sense of life itself. 

Anxious to leave a legacy, more and more baby boomers are turning to writing their memoirs. For some, the story reveals itself effortlessly. Others have difficulty raising the veil for clarity. In the second case, I often find the problem lies in having lived a vast and rich life. What to put in and what to leave out becomes the dilemma.

In order to bring a story to fullness, a writer searches for the underlying structure that best demonstrates some sort of meaning. There are three ways to do this.

1) Write what you are drawn to write and see what you end up with.

2) Pre-plot scenes and ideas on a Plot Planner based on the Universal Story, keeping alert for the moments that could constitute a major crisis which in turn creates a jumping off place for the crowning glory of the work ~ the climax.

3) Write what you are drawn to write and, at the same time, plot out scenes and ideas, keeping in mind the form of the Universal Story.

An event written in scene does not warrant staying in a memoir merely because “it happened that way.” Yes, using true events often leads to a richness of authentic details and emotional revelation. However, just because something meaningful and life-changing happened to you in no way guarantees that the event will be meaningful to your audience. And, of course, the true events must contribute to the overall story plot, or these authentic details end up weighing down the story.

The events themselves must build in conflict, tension, and suspense and provide some sort of thematic significance in the end.

A recent plot consultation revealed a tragic story of loss the writer lived through. This is not unusual. Most of us have experienced some sort of trauma in our lives. Writing about it helps bring meaning and closure. If the aftermath that ensues after a trauma and what is lost and what is gained provides excitement, terrific. However, the one event is not always enough to wrap an entire memoir around. If this is the case, then a secondary plot line may be needed to create more page-turnability to the project and show the overall character transformation. Thus, the trauma becomes the back story, that which makes the character who they have become while the secondary plot line becomes the front story, the moment-by-moment pursuit of a specific and tangible goal.

For for a passage or sentence, character, or plot angle to remain in a memoir will not be because of the beauty of the writing or the cleverness in the plotting or the depth of the characters, although these things are critical in captivating the reader. Each line and each element in each and every scene of a memoir belongs there because it has a definite purpose in providing overall meaning to the piece.

The only scenes that belong in a memoir are the ones that best show how a character responds to the challenges, conflicts, tension, and suspense in one’s own life as she moves nearer to transformation and, in the end, contribute to the overall meaning of the story.

Martha Alderson is the Plot Whisperer. Her latest book — The Plot Whisperer: Secrets of Story Structure Any Writer Can Master has been released by Adams Media. She is the founder of the award-winning blog: The Plot Whisperer, a vlog on YouTube: How Do I Plot a Novel, Memoir, Screenplay? Blockbuster Plots for Writers, and International PlotWriMo. Her books include Blockbuster Plot Pure & Simple and Blockbuster Plots Scene Tracker Kit and several plot dvds and ebooks. Martha takes readers and writers beyond the words and into the very heart of a story.

Her clients include best-selling authors, writing teachers, fiction editors, and Hollywood movie directors.

Memoir Writing and Quilting–Piece by Piece


Writing a memoir means exploring who we are and where we came from, entering the unknowns on our journey and discovering ourselves. It means striking out for the gold of truth and honesty, exposure and even a spiritual journey that leads us away from known territory. Writing a memoir is a lot like the pioneers that my great-grandmother told me about. She was in her eighties and I was about eight years old. Her face was deeply grooved, her eyes sank deep in her sockets, her voice sometimes sounded far away, like she was still back there where her memory took her. She lisped because her teeth were in a jar by the bed. She was still a young girl on the farm near the Mississippi River when the neighbors drove up in a covered wagon and got out to say goodbye. They were going to Kansas—this was in the 1880s, when the prairie was notched with the deep ruts of wagon trains. They knew they had to cross the Missouri River, but they didn’t know what they would encounter along the way. The Indians were more or less removed from the Great Plains by then, but there were outlaws and roving bands, there was not much civilization, and towns were far away from each other. The woman was pregnant, the children barefoot. Blanche never found out what happened to them, but she watched them drive off into the unknown. If any of you have ever driven on a regular road, not a freeway, between Iowa and Kansas, you know it’s quite a ways.

They had a map, there were guides, and they must have gotten to Kansas eventually. We memoirists need maps and guides. One form of the “map” that we can use is what I call writing your “turning points.” These are the most important moments of your life, when nothing was the same after the event. It might be meeting a new person, moving away from your home town, encountering danger, an accident, an illness, or receiving an award or a scholarship, losing a loved one to death, a natural disaster, a birth. Falling in love. Notice that these are emotionally significant events.

Dorothy Allison says to write “where the fear is, where the heat is.” That way we delve into the heart of our stories, of who we were, the high and low points in our lives. Emotion guides us into our journey toward truth and honesty. Judith Barrington says that the memoirist, “Whispers into the ear of the reader.” When we read a memoir, we feel that we are being invited into the secret heart of a person, a family, a time and a place. We are witnessing along with the narrator a world we have never seen before, just like the pioneers.

When I was little, my great grandmother and my great aunts were busy. They were either washing and hanging clothes on the line to dry in the sun, or cooking—my great grandmother still used a wood cook stove—even in the summer! They would bake and can the bounty from the garden, or they were busy with their needlework. They belonged to quilting bees, and would sit around the quilting frame, chattering and stitching by hand. They cut out designs and patterns using pieces of old clothes, creating ripples of colors as the separate patches came together in the design. This is what we do with our turning point stories. They are vignettes that we can write in any order. Again, if we write where the heat is, we will gather the sections that one day will be quilted together into a more finished work of art.

Another guide on the journey is creating a timeline can be another guide. After you list your turning point stories, plot them on a timeline that you create out of an 18×24 inch piece of paper, large enough to hold several decades. Your memoir will most likely be a part or a theme from your life, but when you start writing, you may not yet be clear on your focus. It is not a waste of time to write more stories than you might end up using as you assemble your quilt, as you may have more than one quilt—I mean memoir! The way the turning points cluster on the timeline can offer new insights into your life, revealing things that you were unaware of. A visual element in creating our memoir is helpful. You can Xerox photos that go with the various turning points, and create a kind of vision board, where you weave the colors and the images of your past.

All these techniques help you to write with more power and focus, help to fuel your journey into your memories. The richness stored there goes beyond what you think you remember. The more you write, the more you develop your turning points and the sensual details of your life, the more you will remember. Maybe you will be like Blanche, in her eighties weaving the stories of the 19th century for me as we rested side by side in the featherbed. Those stories stayed with me, and made me want to write, to capture what she showed me, to honor the history that was within her.

And you too will weave magic as you write your memoir.

As you weave your stories, keep an eye out for the plot arc that will satisfy your readers. What is a plot arc? Find out more at the National Association of Memoir Writers Member Teleseminar October 14. Martha Alderson, also known as The Plot Whisperer, will talk about the importance of the Universal Story, and reveal secrets about the necessity of a well planned plot in memoir writing.